Conversations in the Author's Corner: Cameron MacKenzie
About the Book: As the D.C. city sprawl moved west along the banks of the Potomac in the late 1990s, what had once been a rural backwater was rapidly transformed into a dystopian suburbia of suspicion, greed, and naked self-interest. This collection of short stories examines the resulting blends of money, race, and class that have come to define the ongoing metamorphosis of Northern Virginia. In “Kalim Mansour,” a boy trying to understand his father fixates on a mysterious Saudi car salesman. In “Rowdy,” a man who was sexually assaulted by his high school football team still romanticizes their masculine code of behavior. In “A Non-Smoking House,” two contractors battle the realtors who control their livelihood as the ties that bind civil behavior pull tight, and then snap. Each of MacKenzie’s stories explores the incommensurable moments that lie at the heart of shared experience, the yawning gaps that separate us, and our desperate attempts to close them.
About the Author: Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Plume, Salmagundi, The Rumpus, and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other places. His novel, The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career (MadHat Press), chronicles the rise to power of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, and was called "original, poignant, brutal, and beautiful," by Kirkus Reviews. His recent collection of short fiction, River Weather (Alternating Current Press), explores the transformation of Northern Virginia in the 1990s and early 2000s. He received his Ph.D. in English from Temple University in 2010, and published Badiou and American Modernist Poetics (Palgrave Macmillan) in 2018.
Lena Crown: I’d love to start by talking about setting, which acts as a thread that unifies the collection: the periphery of the Virginia suburbs, at the edges of development. Why suburbia as the setting of stories about masculinity and the intricacies, mundanities, and really the intimacies of class conflict?
Cameron MacKenzie: The short answer is that that's where I grew up. But suburbia works for these sorts of stories because they’re about the ground shifting underneath people's feet – things are no longer what they had been, and a lot of these characters are late to get that news, or rather, that news is trying to be delivered. The suburbs is this liminal space where a lot of things are contested by both sides – the city and the country – or at least it was certainly like that growing up in Northern Virginia at the time. That area had been farmland for four centuries. And all of a sudden, there was an influx of money and people from around the world that were razing the forests and throwing up monstrous homes.
LC: Most of these stories are from a first-person point of view, or a close-third POV, of a male (and masculine, often hyper-masculine) character. How did you think about POV when drafting the stories in this collection? Is that something you begin with or alter throughout the writing process?
CM: A lot of the stories are based on things that happened to me, so starting out in first person seems more natural. But sometimes I started writing in the third person, and the narration would take on the linguistic twists and the accent of a character. So a lot of the stories wanted to be first person, I think – and that’s also because what I tried to do with a lot of these stories is to conjure tension within the reader. If you have an omniscient third that ostensibly knows everything and can drop in and out of certain characters, that omniscient third will have a set of values, a morality that will transcend what's happening in the story. And I didn't want to give the reader that sort of backdoor out of the story. The first person in a lot of these stories is caught up in behavior that he believes to be appalling, and I wanted the reader to come to their own understanding of that.
LC: Many of the narrators are observers; what they know, they have learned from watching, listening, or from hearsay. What draws you to the quiet observer, or the passive recipient of information?
CM: I think it's a classic setup. First off, I think authors are voyeurs – watching, remembering, gathering. They get themselves into difficult situations, hover, and record. If you write it from the perspective of the people that are in the thick of the action, then you lose a little bit of the mediation that the reader might need. By the same token, if you go all the way third, I think that's too much mediation. And I think this sort of judging voice is not really believable or desirable.
LC: Several stories rely on detailed and authoritative descriptions of things like construction, carpentry, wrestling, and rigging or knot-tying. These descriptions go into the body, into the visceral experience of completing the task at hand. Do you tend to pull from your own expertise when building out the world of your stories, or does research play a role?
CM: It’s all from personal experience. I was sitting in a bar with an editor once, and he told me, “I just want to read a story where people are doing something that I don't know anything about.” I started thinking, I can do that. But one of the things I found is that it's incredibly difficult to write complicated movements in a way that is clear and compelling, and that also pushes the story forward. It's fun for me to look at the steps of a physical process and say, Okay, this is what has to happen. And especially for the characters I'm talking about, they are much more comfortable expressing themselves physically than through dialogue. But they can tell you a lot about themselves by the way they use a hammer or walk across a room.
LC: Many of these poor white male characters express hatred towards others — racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and all of those combined. Could you talk a little bit about how you approach writing about hate, if that’s what you would call it? What were your goals with this collection in terms of theme?
CM: The hate is the result of fear, which is a result of unfamiliarity. And language binds people together. If you agree to the language being used, you're now on the inside. And so many people are desperate to be on the inside. The characters in this book are boys learning how to be men from other men. And the men they're surrounded by, the answers that they're given, are perverse, or hateful, or incorrect, or traumatizing. The question is, what does that do to you if you accept that? And how do you pass it on? Once I realized that I had these characters, I also realized I had to do each one of them justice. To not necessarily show that they're capable of empathy, but to empathize as a writer with each one of them as a human being, someone just as capable of redemption as anybody else.
LC: How did you go about structuring the collection?
CM: Laying the stories out, there was a big question of rhythm. If two stories were very similar in length or structure, I didn't want them to be placed back to back. But I also decided to start with the stories that were the most straightforward, since I didn’t want to confuse the reader. Then the book moves into some of the stranger stories, like “Sit a Horse,” which barely holds together. I think it’s meant to barely hold together. To me, that piece is really the dark heart of the whole work, but it needed to be in the back half, where I felt I could get a bit more experimental.
LC: Finally, for our Author’s Corner project, we’re promoting authors who have published with small, indie presses. Could you talk us through your publication process?
CM: Once I knew what the manuscript was going to look like, I reviewed as many lists as I could of small presses, since I knew I wanted to go to a small press for this book rather than wrestling with the whole agent process. This was the middle of Covid, so I sat on my couch in the afternoons while my kids were napping and researched. I also talked to other writer friends of mine about places they’d published. And I didn’t expect this to happen at all, but I was able to field offers from a few different publishers, and I went with the one that loved the book the most in the first place. They have been so supportive and so organized; they answer questions; they keep me up to date on how it’s selling. It has been a dream to work with them.
Watch the entire interview on YouTube here:
About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses.